Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - July 6, 2004:
* "Saving The Planet" By Letting Innocents Die
* Beware Agrarian Utopians
* GM research collapses in UK as last big firm quits
* Annan Calls for Green Revolution to Feed Africa
* A Vital Step Towards Global Food Security
* Chasing 'Transgenic' Shadows
* Drugs in Crops
* Biotechnology As Religion
* Inventing for the Environment
* EPA Symposium on the Development of Strategic Programs for Monitoring Ecological Impact from Plant-Incorporated Protectants (Pips)
"Saving The Planet" By Letting Innocents Die
- "John Aquilino"
Dear Prakash: I'm so very upset by the nonsense that is being spouted, particularly in Africa, about the work men and women like you do to feed us all that I'm willing to try even this thin chance at talking some sense into someone about food policies where your work can and will make a difference. My son, now 14, was born without his left ventricle. Barely two years before his birth all that the American Heart Association recommended in a thin volume to parents was to make children like him comfortable for they would be dead within a month.
On May 2nd my son suffered an episode of cardiac arrest. He is currently in National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington DC trying to reestablish some connection between his brain and body. He's alert. Attentive but can't eat or move his arms, legs, etc. So my commitment grows. While at the 1994 meeting of CITES in Ft. Lauderdale I met a number of activists from rural Africa seeking permission to use their wild resources in a sustainable manner to increase economic opportunity. Then Zimbabwe was leading the Continent in the area of placing responsibility for local wildlife in the hands of impoverished rural communities sharing the land with the animals. Aside from the common sense of this approach to wildlife conservation, what struck me the most was the idea that had my son been born in one of those communities he would be dead within two days. I've never forgotten that. It motivates a considerable amount of my thought, writing, and work. This is a bit of an explanation as to why I appreciate biotechnology and am frustrated with those who say they are "saving the planet" by letting innocents die when they disrupt, delay and destroy medical and agricultural biotech research.
Beware Agrarian Utopians
- Scripps Howard News Service, July 1, 2004, By Michael Fumento
On the grounds of Versailles lies Marie-Antoinette's "Hameau" (hamlet) – at once lovely and pathetic. It comprises about 20 fairy-tale cottages and small buildings. The Austrian-born queen never felt at home in her adopted land. And so during her free time, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting, she pretended to be a milkmaid.
The Hameau is a timber and thatch metaphor for what's called "agrarian utopianism." Its devotees look back with longing on the time when people lived in tiny villages, and virtually everybody was somehow involved in farming. They believe that if we all just hooked a plow to a pair of oxen and eked out a living on a few acres of soil the world would somehow be a better place.
The best-known agrarian utopian today is another monarch, Prince Charles of Britain. While Marie-Antoinette played a milkmaid, Charles plays farmer. He has his own plot of organically grown fruits and vegetables that he pays others to oversee. Like Marie Antoinette, he can go there whenever he likes, do what he likes, and then slip off his designer boots to become again a pampered prince.
To him, farming is simply a fun game. Sadly, this is how he perceives all agriculture. Like all agrarian utopians, Charles views the past through thick lenses of nostalgia, sentimentality and romanticism. He doesn't fear his family will starve if insects or worms destroy his crops. He has no idea of the back-breaking work farming was less than a century ago, of the life philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Yet this cult of nature-worship and agrarian sentimentalism is a powerful force in the opposition to agricultural biotech and synthetic pesticides. It's revealed in every biotech attack by the Prince of Wales, who not incidentally has also just endorsed coffee enemas as a cancer cure. After all, coffee is natural – though arguably having it pumped up your rectum five times daily is not.
Margaret Mellon of the staunchly anti-biotech Union of Concerned Scientists now pretends her arguments are based on science rather than sentimentalism. But previously she asserted, "I resist the notion of improving nature in the future, just as I lament the loss of nature as it was in the past."
Yet agrarian utopians venerate nature in a way it has never deserved. Nature offers rain and sunlight to nourish crops and wind to blow the pollen. But it often gives that rain as floods, or withholds it and causes drought. It "provides" brutal winters that kill livestock and windstorms that whisk topsoil away forever. It brings hideous diseases of crops, animals and people.
In his oft-cited little book Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology, former farmer Brewster Kneen admits, "I am against all biotechnology," including even lifesaving pharmaceuticals. "Not on principle," he says, "but because, as an artifact of society, an expression of a particular culture, I think 'modern biotechnology' is a bad attitude – a bad attitude towards life, towards Creation, towards other cultures and other ways of knowing and experiencing the world."
Psychobabble? Sure. But at least Kneen admits what so many of his fellow critics will not – that he truly opposes progress for its own sake.
The ultimate manifestation of agrarian utopianism is organic farming. It's hard to think of being sentimental about manure, but that's the only "advantage" it has over chemical fertilizers. Organic insecticides (yes, they use them) are old-fashioned. Rather than poison weeds with herbicides, they dig them up, thereby loosening and ultimately losing the topsoil.
Now, just what does organic food provide? More nutrition? No. More attractive food to steer kids from processed junk to fresh produce? "Not likely!" chuckles Mr. Worm from the comfort of your organic apple. Is it safer? No. In some cases such as bean sprouts, which are often contaminated by nasty E. coli bacteria from manure, it's clearly hazardous. Does organic food save consumers money? That's an unfunny joke. By raising the price of fresh produce, it hurts those already eating the least – the poor.
Yet there are those princes who insist that the paupers pay more to get less. Others who would say of those who can't afford organic bread that which poor Marie-Antoinette never did: "Let them eat cake!"
GM research collapses in UK as last big firm quits
- The Independent, By Geoffrey Lean, 04 July 2004
Research into genetically modified crops in Britain is set to collapse, following the withdrawal of the last major biotech company, pro-GM scientists, the industry and environmentalists have all told The Independent on Sunday.
Last week Syngenta, the only big firm still working on genetically modified agriculture in the UK, announced it was moving all its operations to the United States.
The Anglo-Swiss company will stop all GM research at its site in Berkshire and move it to North Carolina, with a loss of 130 jobs.
Yesterday leaders of both sides of the debate predicted that the development of GM crops in Britain was doomed for the foreseeable future. They said university research is increasingly financed by businesses, and doubted the Government would continue to plough public money into research that had no application in Britain.
Professor Anthony Trewavas, the Professor of Plant Biochemistry at Edinburgh University, told The Independent on Sunday: "This is a sad retreat. Work in universities will probably cease as well."
He said it would have "long-term" effects because "once teams are dispersed it takes a long time to get things back together again".
Professor Michael Wilson, Professor of Plant Biology at Warwick University and a member of the government-appointed GM science panel, said: "I am afraid that the Luddites have effectively won." He blamed the media and "ego-tripping and propagandising" environmentalists.
The GM industry's Agriculture and Biotechnology Council said research in the UK was becoming more difficult because of a lack of government support.
But Lord Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association, said that the technology had been rejected because of "deep public unease".
Pete Riley, of the Five Year Freeze, an anti-GM pressure group, said: "If you produce things that people do not want to buy you cannot expect to stay in business long." He urged the Government to provide more finance to university researchers so that they were less dependent on commercial funding.
Annan Calls for Green Revolution to Feed Africa
- Reuters, By Andrew Quinn, July 5, 2004 (Via Agnet)
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was cited as telling a food conference ahead of this week's African Union summit in the Ethiopian ca pital that Africa was unlikely to reach its target of halving hunger by 2015, leaving millions doomed to chronic poverty and vulnerable to everything from natural disasters to the global AIDS epidemic, adding, "Let us generate a uniquely African Green Revolution - a revolution that is long overdue, a revolution that will help the continent on its quest for dignity and peace."
The story says that Africa has largely missed the benefits of earlier Green Revolutions which harnessed technological advances to triple food output in Asia and Latin America, dramatically lowering the number of undernourished people.
Nearly 200 million people, or one-third of adults in sub-Saharan Africa, remain severely undernourished, and food output is declining in 31 out of 53 African countries despite a population expected to double to 1.5 billion by 2030.
The story goes on to say that among the strategies presented at Monday's meeting, and already in practice in countries ranging from Ethiopia to Ghana, were improving small-scale irrigation and water collection, broader use of fertilisers to heal exhausted soil and school food programmes to both improve child nutrition and provide fresh markets for farmers.
Annan also urged African countries - some of which resist the use of genetically modified crops - not to shy away from biotechnology as long as it is developed judiciously and used with adequate safety and transparency measures.
A Vital Step Towards Global Food Security
- Financial Times, July 4, 2004, By M.S. Swaminathan And Per Pinstrup-Andersen
Last week, an extraordinary treaty came into force. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, is meant to help ensure a sustainable and plentiful food supply, regardless of the challenges posed by nature or humankind. This is no small task, given the unknown impacts of future forces such as climate change, disease and poverty, and sweeping technological advances.
But unlike many treaties that enter the world in an anaemic and enfeebled state, this one comes full of vitality. It derives its energy, in part, from a unique instrument known as the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The trust, established by the FAO and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), is building a $260m endowment. The interest income from this endowment will fund crop diversity collections around the world, in perpetuity. Although not widely realised and appreciated, thnese collections form the basic building blocks of all agriculture. Without them, the treaty, and indeed humanity itself, would be the losers.
Crop diversity collections form the basis of much innovation in agriculture, containing genes that confer traits to improve yield, to cope with new or old pests and diseases, and with changing conditions such as extended drought or the salinisation of soils as sea levels rise.
Every year, farmers and breeders around the world generate scores of new crop varieties, and without them, world agricultural production would spiral downwards. Each time a gene or species is lost, we further limit our options for the future.
One classic example serves to illustrate this point. In the 1970s, a virus was reeking havoc with maize (corn) harvests in many parts of Africa and the islands of the Indian Ocean, leaving corn plants with half-formed cobs.
Scientists turned to crop diversity collections, gaining access to corn varieties from a number of countries. A handful of these were found to have resistance to the disease - including certain plants from Tanzania, Reunion Island, and Nigeria - and from these the scientists were able to breed new maize varieties resistant to the virus. They eventually produced more than 100 varieties of maize, suited to all of the relevant farming systems and ecologies in Africa, improving maize yields for poor farmers acnross the continent.
While crop genetic diversity - the legacy of 10,000 years of plant domestication - has dwindled in farmers' fields, it is today secured in some 1,470 gene banks around the world. But most are erratically funded, and many lack the resources needed to carry out basic operations such as refrigeration or replication of seeds. A number of irreplaceable collections has been lost - from maize collections in Latin America to citrus collections in China. Unless the world's crop genetic collections are secured, foodn security will remain in jeopardy.
The first task of the Trust is both historic and Herculean. Region by region and crop by crop, it has begun a global inventory of the material in the world's collections of crop diversity. From the large collections of the CGIAR to small national collections - whether in the Ural Mountains of Central Asia or on remote Pacific Islands - all will be accounted for.
This process will enable scientists, farmers and policymakers to identify the most endangered collections, with a focus on 64 food crops and forages designated by the treaty as critical to world food security. The trust will then direct its resources towards the rescue and rehabilitation of gene-bank hot spots in urgent need of support.
But there is a hitch. Even as it begins its work, the trust is seeking the full financial backing of the world community, including national governments, foundations and the private sector. Although $13m per year (the annual income from the $260m endowment) may seem like a small price to pay for a unique heritage with the potential to underpin food security, the trust is not yet fully endowed. To date, $45m has been committed, with a further $60m under discussion.
The nations of the world, whether large or small, developed or developing, have shown their commitment to this cause over seven years of tough international negotiations to bring the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources into being. Given the global significance of its task - which may ultimately provide a passport to the basic human right of freedom from hunger - it is perhaps unsurprising that the negotiations were drawn out and difficult.
But though the negotiators' work is done, the treaty's is only just beginning. The international community must ensure that this political achievement is complemented by the financial muscle of organisations, such as the Global Crop Diversity Trust, that have a mandate to implement their collective will.
-- M.S. Swaminathan, who received the first World Food Prize in 1987, is chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, recipient of the 2001 World Food Prize, is a professor at Cornell University and the Danish Agricultural University and chairman of the Science Council for the CGIAR
Chasing 'Transgenic' Shadows
- Henry I Miller & Gregory Conko, Nature Biotechnology 22, 654 - 655 (June, 2004); Reprinted in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.
To the Editor: Although there is a certain elegance in the investigation reported by Netherwood et al.1 in the February issue studying the transfer of 'transgenic' DNA from a recombinant DNA - modified plant to the people who eat it or to their microflora, arguably there is less to these experiments than meets the eye. More than anything, they seem to prove the artificiality of the semantic constructs 'transgene' and 'transgenic,' which refer specifically to the movement of genes across species or other phylogenetic groupings by means of molecular (that is, recombinant DNA) techniques.
Since the 1930s, plant breeders have performed 'wide-cross' hybridizations in which large numbers of 'alien' genes are moved from one species or one genus to another to create plant varieties that do not and cannot exist in nature2. Commercial varieties derived from wide crosses include tomato, potato, pumpkin, oat, rice, wheat and corn, among others.
In these examples of prerecombinant-DNA genetic improvement, breeders and food producers possess little knowledge of the exact genetic changes that produced the useful trait, information about what other changes have occurred concomitantly in the plant or data on the transfer of newly incorporated genes into animals, humans or microorganisms. Consider, for example, the relatively new man-made wheat 'species' Triticum agropyrotriticum, which resulted from the wide-cross combination of the genomes of bread wheat and a wild grass sometimes called quackgrass or couchgrass3. T. agropyrotriticum, which possesses all the chromosomes of wheat as well as the entire genome of the quackgrass, was independently produced for both animal feed and human food in the former Soviet Union, Canada, the United States, France, Germany and China.
By any reasonable scientific definition, T. agropyrotriticum contains tens of thousands of 'transgenes,' although they were not introduced by molecular techniques. At least in theory, several kinds of problems could arise from a genetic construction that introduces tens of thousands of uncharacterized and untested 'alien' genes into an established plant variety-as is the case with T. agropyrotriticum-or that contains large numbers of random and uncharacterized genetic mutations created by mutagens, another common prerecombinant-DNA technique for genetic improvement4. These concerns include the potential for increased invasiveness, or 'weediness,' of the plant in the field, and the possibility that quackgrass-derived or mutant proteins could be toxic or allergenic. Yet dozens of new varieties are produced each year through these imprecise, traditional methods of genetic improvement, and they enter the marketplace and food supply without any governmental review or special labeling.
Furthermore, their cultivation and consumption are categorically disregarded by the antibiotech scolds who claim to be interested in consumer and environmental safety--and often also by scientists who feel there is value in investigating the fate of recombinant DNA-derived, 'transgenic' DNA in the gut.
Finally, the significance of the finding by Netherwood et al. that DNA had crossed from the recombinant DNA-modified soya to intestinal microflora even before the subjects' participation in the study must be viewed against the background of what occurs continuously in nature. Innumerable recombination events among unrelated organisms occur constantly by several mechanisms5. In the gut, in infected wounds, decomposing bodies and decaying plant material, bacteria take up naked mammalian DNA (albeit inefficiently) from disintegrating cells. Over the past thousands of millennia, mammalian-bacterial, plant-bacterial and other genetic hybrids have appeared, been tested by competition within bacterial populations and by environmental stresses, and ultimately conserved or discarded by natural selection. This sort of genetic recombination also has been rampant among fungi and viruses. One need look no further than the promiscuous genetic recombination that occurs continuously among the organisms, living and dead, on the underside of a dead log in the forest, or in a compost heap.
Similar to the wide crosses in plants described above, certain kinds of gene transfers once thought to be impossible in nature because of phylogenetic distances (so-called 'natural breeding barriers') are now known to occur. Researchers at the Pasteur Institute (Paris) have demonstrated that a gene (or genes) for erythromycin resistance can be transferred through natural interaction between two entirely different classes of bacteria--from Gram-positive Campylobacter to Gram-negative Escherichia coli BM2570 (ref. 6). Others have shown that gene transfer can occur between E. coli and streptomyces 7 or yeast 8, and that crown gall disease in plants results from a natural transfer of DNA from the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens to plant cells9.
Evolutionary studies offer additional data relevant to the issue of the 'novelty' of molecular chimeras created by recombinant DNA technology--whether, for example, the transfer of a gene from a jellyfish into a zebrafish 10 (which makes them glow fluorescently) somehow alters the latter's 'fishness,' or conveys 'jellyfishness' to the zebrafish. The sequencing of various genomes during the past quarter century reveals that nature has been remarkably conservative about using and maintaining efficient molecules as they evolved. Nearly identical DNA sequences and biochemical pathways are found in different species and genera, and even across phylogenetic kingdoms. Scanning the DNA sequence of the E. coli genome to search for regions of a high degree of homology to other genomes, for example, reveals gene sequences that are virtually identical to those in a variety of organisms, including other bacteria, plants, insects, amphibians, birds and humans 11. Up to 90% of rat genes have matches in both humans and mice 12, and as many as 48% of human genes associated with disease can be found in the simple plant Arabidopsis thaliana 13.
With such broad conservation and 'sharing' of genes in nature, debates about the proprietary nature of 'human,' 'plant' and 'bacterial' genes--and about the significance of one new 'transgene' that has moved from soya into intestinal microflora--arguably become moot. The real concern should be not the source of a newly introduced gene or the method of transfer, but its function, and whether it is harmful, beneficial or without effect.
1. Netherwood, T. et al. Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 204-209 (2004).
2. Goodman, R.M., Hauptli, H., Crossway, A. & Knauf, V.C. Science
236, 48-54 (1987).
3. Sinigovets, M.E. Genetika 23, 854-862 (1987).
4. International Atomic Energy Agency. Officially Released Mutant
Varieties: The FAO/IAEA Database (Joint FAO-IAEA Division,
International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, Austria, December 2000). 5. Davis, B.D. Science 193, 442 (1976). | PubMed | ISI | 6. Brisson-Noel, A., Arthur, M. & Courvalin, P. J. Bacteriol. 170,
7. Mazodier, P., Petter, R. & Thompson, C. J. Bacteriol. 171, 3583 (1989).
8. Heinemann, J.A. & Sprague Jr., G.G. Nature 340, 205-209 (1989). 9. Chilton, M.D. et al. Cell 11, 263-271 (1977).
10. Gong, Z. et al. Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 308, 58-63 (2003).
11. Takemoto, K., Yano, M., Akiyama, Y. & Mori, H. GenoBase 1.1
Escherichia Coli (March 1994).
12. Lindblad-Toh, K. Nature 428, 475-476 (2004).
13. The Arabadopsis Initiative. Nature 408, 796-815 (2000).
1 The Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, California
94305-6010, USA. email@example.com
2 Competitive Enterprise Institute, 1001 Connecticut Avenue, NW,
Washington, DC 20036, USA
Drugs in Crops
- Gregory C Phillips, Nature Biotechnology 22, 655 - 656 (June, 2004); Reprinted in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.
To the editor: Your recent editorial concerning the production of pharmaceuticals in food crops (Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 133, 2004) raises some important issues that are being, and will continue to be, addressed by the molecular farming industry and government regulators. All parties involved agree with your view that it is of paramount importance to keep pharmaceutical products out of the food supply. Those in the industry who use corn or other food crops for the production of pharmaceutical proteins have worked diligently with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA; Washington, DC, USA) to develop protocols that will greatly reduce the already low likelihood of food contamination by a pharmaceutical product. However, a ban on all pharmaceutical products produced in any food crop would negatively affect the feasibility of economic large-scale production to a point where the benefits of this technology may not be realized. Furthermore, such an across-the-board ban has no scientific basis in the risk models used to assess safety and contamination.
Many medical and product processing advances over the past few decades have come from the introduction of biotech products, including recombinant proteins. The focus of the molecular farming industry is to make feasible the large-scale production of pharmaceutical and industrial proteins that is either too costly or impractical to produce by other means. The positive consequences of success in this endeavor include a more readily available supply of pharmaceuticals, thus improving access to current treatments and potentially allowing the development and uptake of new protein-based treatments. Drugs that currently have limited means of large-scale supply, such as antibodies, clearly fit into this category. Similarly, the large-scale production of enzymes in plants can open up new, more environmentally friendly ways to degrade waste materials, for example. Plant production systems have the added advantage of being animal-source free, and so score positively from a safety standpoint over native or transgenic animal protein sources.
The choice of the plant production system has been based on an extensive and careful consideration of economic, practical and safety factors. As suggested in your editorial, high yields and developed infrastructure are advantages to producing pharmaceuticals in such food crops as corn. More importantly, corn seed has a relatively high protein content and this seed can be stored for years at ambient temperature without loss of the protein product. Thus, the breeding programs that have given rise to such an excellent food and feed crop also make corn an excellent repository for introduced proteins. Nonfood species, such as your suggestion of Arabidopsis thaliana, cannot compete on these practical and economic criteria.
Furthermore, the very fact that corn is a food and feed crop makes it a perfect delivery system for such products as edible vaccines. Were a nonfood plant such as A. thaliana or tobacco used, safety and palatability restraints would require extensive purification of the protein vaccine before delivery, thus greatly increasing cost and reducing the potential benefits of this technology. Even with a protein purification scheme in place, the use of noncrop species can greatly increase risk factors associated with a product. Also, several nonfood crop alternatives suffer the drawback that they can easily interbreed with wild plant populations. Thus, in selecting a production system the objective must be to realize the benefits to the technology while minimizing the risks, and due consideration must be given to both product safety and environmental safety.
The goal for food safety is to minimize risk, not to make political or arbitrary rules. It is important that safeguards are put in place that give a degree of protection to the food supply and the environment that is equivalent or superior to that in other systems used today, such as the production of pharmaceuticals in yeast and chicken eggs. The USDA has recently added many additional regulations to ensure greater safety. Companies are required to have a detailed compliance program in place before production begins. All involved personnel are required to be trained on the procedures relevant to their area and adherence to these procedures is enforced. All equipment that enters a regulated field release site, or is exposed to the regulated articles, must be thoroughly cleaned before it leaves the site or is used for any other purpose. Much of this equipment is often dedicated only to plant-made pharmaceutical production and decommissioned equipment must be inspected and approved by Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (Washington, DC, USA) before it can be returned to regular service. The entire production process must be thoroughly documented and is very tightly controlled.
We feel that the critical underlying focus should be on keeping the recombinant proteins out of the food supply regardless of what crop was used to make them. The crops should be grown under suitable containment conditions-rather than arbitrarily ruling out specific vehicles. Also, the risk associated with each protein should be reviewed on the basis of the properties of that specific protein, not on the basis of the production system used. The risk of potential contamination of the food supply is one associated with all genetically enhanced organisms, not just the food crops. Indeed, food supply contamination can occur with nongenetically modified or natural production systems as well!
Although plant-produced pharmaceuticals have raised concern in political debates, it is important that Nature Biotechnology reports science-based facts and arguments and does not give credence to the whims of special interest groups whose position is not science based. Our discussion here should be focused on a safe food supply, and on appropriate safety and containment issues regarding the cost-effective production of pharmaceuticals. A. thaliana, flax or duckweed may be appropriate choices for production of certain plant-made pharmaceuticals, but in other cases it may be corn, potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, soybeans, rice or some other food crop that makes the most sense both scientifically and economically.
-- Arkansas State University, College of Agriculture, PO Box 1080, 119 S. Caraway Road, State University, Arkansas 72467-1080, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
Biotechnology As Religion
- Leigh Turner, Nature Biotechnology 22, 659 - 660 (June, 2004); Reprinted in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.
Since the early days of the Human Genome Project, numerous scholars have explored how genetics often serves not just as a scientific research program, but also as a theology or quasi-religious belief system. Dorothy Nelkin, a longtime observer of popular understandings of genetics, drew attention to "promotional metaphors" characterizing the genome as "The Book of Life" and the Human Genome Project as the quest for the "Holy Grail" 1. Nelkin noted the spiritual aspects of "genetic essentialism" in which genes are imbued with all the properties of the person or self. Developing this line of analysis, Brian Alexander's book 2 explores the prophets, disciples and spiritual creed of biotech.
Many individuals draw a bright line between religion and the sciences. Religious narratives, according to this account, contain beliefs about the universe, the creation of the cosmos and notions of afterlife and resurrection. Science, in contrast, is asserted to provide not value-laden beliefs, but factual understandings of the world denuded of theological or religious significance. Popular accounts of genetics, however, do not merely include scientific understandings of natural processes. Rather, genetics--and biotech more broadly--has all the social power of a belief system or surrogate religion.
Although religious understandings extend far beyond notions of immortality and models of an afterlife, many religious traditions provide an important existential function. They provide followers with notions of a life beyond death. Human existence does not end at the moment of death. Rather, the soul crosses into another world--heaven, hell, purgatory or some other place--and the material body is either reconstituted or rendered irrelevant. In part, many sociologists of religion argue, religions provide belief systems that negate the finality of death and transience of the person. What doctrines of resurrection and transmigration of souls once offered, the mythology of biotech now provides.
Within religious traditions, spiritual narratives concerning immortality typically include a journey to another world. Within the belief systems of transhumanists, posthumanists and other technological enthusiasts, biotech offers the prospect for life extension and (more fancifully) even immortality within this world. We can recognize how biotech serves as a surrogate religious system whenever we encounter technological enthusiasts convinced that somatic cell nuclear transfer, stem cell research and regenerative medicine, gene therapy, artificial organs and prosthetic implants will enable researchers to slow or reverse aging processes and permit humans to lead prolonged lives 3. The identification of aging genes, the creation of long-lasting artificial organs and prostheses and the use of telomerase and stem cell therapies will all supposedly enable individuals to avoid the harmful effects of aging and escape mortality 4. Fantasies about artificial intelligence and advanced robotic technologies are often added to such biotechnological dreams. Technoevangelists refer to the prospect of achieving immortality through downloading human minds into computers or using cybernetic technologies to creation human-machine cyborgs with long-lasting, replaceable parts.
Traditional religious cosmologies place eternity on some other plane of existence. Biotechnological fantasies locate immortality here on earth. Both religious mythologies concerning immortality and biotechnological fantasies about controlling aging and conquering mortality respond to understandable human anxieties surrounding death. Death represents an end to human existence, the destruction of the self and the breaking of social bonds. Religious notions of resurrection and eternal life and popular biotechnological fantasies about creating immortal bodies both respond to fears about death, impermanence, human vulnerability and the dissolution of the self. Both religious theological frameworks and quasi-religious biotechnological fantasies suggest that aging and fragility can be conquered and death overcome.
Many biotech enthusiasts have no interest in traditional religions. They identify themselves as atheists, agnostics or 'brightists.' Religion, for them, offers no framework for salvation. Instead, biotech provides a surrogate religious narrative. Biotech offers the prospect of a this-worldly form of life extension. In some respects, what could be more different than belief in theological dogmas and enthusiasm for developments in life sciences research, biotech, robotics and artificial intelligence? 'Science' and 'religion' are often juxtaposed as polar opposites. However, science and technology can very easily provide surrogate religious systems promising many of the insights and rewards offered by traditional religious cosmologies.
Biotech, in a similar manner to many religious movements, has its charismatic prophets, enthusiastic evangelists and enrapt audiences. Like religions, it offers a comforting message of salvation. Instead of imagining a day of rapture when the dead rise from their graves to begin eternal life, biotech enthusiasts imagine the era when medical technologies provide a renewable, largely imperishable body.
Many religious beliefs carry little threat of individual or social harm. However, religious cosmologies can have pernicious consequences. Belief in an afterlife can lead cult members to commit mass suicide. Notions of a glorious afterlife can lead believers to treat this-wordly existence with contempt. Similarly, biotech fantasies about immortality can have disturbing consequences. Trusting individuals can purchase costly 'antiaging' products that have no discernable effect upon the prolongation of life. Enthusiasm for biotech can create unrealistic expectations about the capacity of biomedicine to control illness and aging. Belief in the imminent arrival of radically innovative biotech therapies can create unhelpful expectations when individuals or their loved ones show signs of illness or aging. An obsessive quest for the elixir of immortality can build a cult around the youthful, unwrinkled body.
Biotech is not just an assemblage of research programs and techniques. In a scientific and technological era, biotech also offers a surrogate religious framework for many individuals. We might want to explore the dangers associated with turning biotech into a belief system. With little reason to think that the biotechnological rapture of posthuman bodies is imminent, we might want to start paying more attention to how biotech enthusiasts prey upon deep-rooted fears and anxieties and offer familiar messages about how death shall be no more. The religion of biotech needs to be challenged by debunkers and skeptics as 'antiaging' potions and nostrums become increasingly popular and profitable.
1. Nelkin, D. Public Understanding Sci. 3, 25-31 (1994).
2. Alexander, B. Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion (Basic
Books, New York, 2003).
3. Hall, S.S. Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human
Life Extension (Houghton Mifflin, New York, USA, 2003).
4. West, M. The Immortal Cell: One Scientist's Quest to Solve the
Mystery of Human Aging (Doubleday, New York, 2003).
Leigh Turner is in the Biomedical Ethics Unit, Department of Social Studies of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, McGill University, 3647 Peel Street, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1X1, Canada and 2003-2004 member of the Institute for Advanced Study, School of Social Science, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA. email@example.com
Inventing for the Environment
Edited by Arthur Molella and Joyce Bedi, MIT Press, http://mitpress.mit.edu/
September 2003; ISBN 0-262-13427-6; 424 pp., Amazon.com price $20.37
This ambitious book describes the many ways in which invention affects the environment (here defined broadly to include all forms of interaction between humans and nature). The book starts with nature itself and then leads readers to examine the built environment and then specific technologies in areas such as public health and energy.
Each part focuses on a single environmental issue. Topics range widely, from the role of innovation in urban landscapes to the relationship among technological innovation, public health, and the environment. Each part features an essay by a historian, an essay by a practitioner, and a "portrait of innovation" describing an individual whose work has made a difference. The mixture of historians and practitioners is critical because statements about the environment inevitably measure present and future conditions against those of the past. Early in the industrial revolution, smoke stacks were symbols of prosperity; at its end they were regarded as signs of pollution. Historical examples can also lead to the rediscovery of an old technology, as in the revival of straw bale construction. As it explores the history of invention for the environment, the book suggests many new ways to put the past to use for the common good.
EPA Symposium on the Development of Strategic Programs for Monitoring Ecological Impact from Plant-Incorporated Protectants (Pips)
Historically, monitoring programs in association with field releases of crops with plant incorporated protectants (PIPs) have been, explicitly or implicitly, called for as a part of risk assessment/management schemes or regulatory agenda. However, it is often not clear what should be monitored, why, or for how long. Recommendations of objectives and methodologies were made with little understanding of their scientific legitimacy. Monitoring for the development of insect resistance to pesticides-identified as early as 1991-provides the single best example of science based monitoring program development. This is, however, only one of many potential ecological concerns associated with PIP crops, and often the decision as to what to monitor for has depended as much on what was possible to monitor as it has on the identified concern.
While wide-ranging, non-specified monitoring programs to detect new or unique effects of genetic engineering are being suggested (e.g., changes in non-target insect populations), such monitoring may be quite expensive and inefficient. Even if a previously unknown problem were discovered, surely most open-ended studies of this nature will find nothing at great expense. It will be most helpful to decision makers and those who will be charged with the design and implementation of monitoring programs to know explicitly what should be monitored, the reason behind the concern(s) that generated the need for monitoring, appropriate methods for conducting the monitoring, and finally the purpose for the data to be collected. Well-done risk assessments, along with providing the argument for establishing appropriate levels of monitoring, will also address these four categories of information needs.
At this symposium, science experts will discuss the state of the science in environmental monitoring efforts and particularly those related to determination of ecological impact from PIP crop plants. The goal is to determine effective strategies for identifying the key risks of concern and appropriate risk management technologies to mitigate these key risks when the monitoring studies indicate unintended adverse consequences. By focusing on the agroecosystem condition, it may be possible to ameliorate the spatio-temporal problems associated with monitoring large scale planting of PIP crop plants and the natural variability inherent in identifying and tracking ecosystem change. The point is to determine what in-field condition(s) might prove to be indicative of change (as an early warning indicator) or evidence of an ecological impact, e.g., decreasing insect populations. At a minimum, the conference scope will include discussion of:
1. Monitoring principles/objectives for transgenic plants with strengths and limitations. 2. Monitoring studies to date including rationale, objectives, design, conclusions and lessons learned. 3. Criteria for selection and use of indicator species. 4. Use of statistical analyses for developing strategic monitoring plan.
DATES: The symposium will be held Tuesday, August 3, 2004 through Thursday, August 5, 2004, running from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.
ADDRESSES: The symposium will be held at the Sheraton Hotel in Crystal City, 1800 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, VA 22202; telephone 703-769-3946.
A limited number of rooms will be available at the Sheraton Hotel through July 3, 2004, for the special meeting rate of $150 per night. The meeting location is within walking distance of the Crystal City Metro Stop on the Blue and Yellow Lines. EPA supports the goals of green conferencing and strongly encourages participants at this meeting to recycle, reduce the use of paper products and bulk mailings, and use mass transit. More about green conferencing can be found at: http://www.epa.gov/oppt/greenmeetings/.
TN & Associates, an EPA contractor, is organizing, convening, and conducting the symposium. To attend the symposium, please preregister by July 30, 2004. You may register by e-mail by contacting Holly Stoddard at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (678) 355-5550 x0. On site registration will be accepted on a space available basis.
TN & Associates, an EPA contractor, is organizing, convening, and conducting the symposium. To attend the symposium, please preregister by July 30, 2004. You may register on line by contacting Holly Stoddard at email@example.com or by calling (678) 355-5550 x0. On site registration will be accepted on a space available basis.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: For symposium information, registration, and logistics, contact Holly Stoddard; For further information, the EPA contact is Dr. Robert Frederick, telephone: (202) 564-3207; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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